Bitter Root Vol. 1 – Harlem’s Very Own Crew of Monster Brawlers

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Social Horror, which marries social commentary with the horror genre, which has existed as early as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) experienced a resurgence shortly after the release of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). Peele’s culture shock paved the way for a variety of films, books, and comics. However, the best part of this impact may be the increased inclusion of diverse voices speaking to their own histories and adversities. It’s no coincidence that this story takes place during the Harlem Renaissance, because it is undoubtedly part of a new renaissance of socio-political art to come from a modern age of political unrest. 

Bitter Root Horror Comic art featuring a demon hand reaching for a man

Bitter Root (2019) presents a historical fantasy where the power of hate can literally transform your being. Told through a kaleidoscope of colorful images, humorous banter, and breakneck action sequences, this series is what you’d get if Mike Mignola combined his Hellboy comic series with the Lovecraftian-inspired novel Lovecraft Country. It’s a fun dark fantasy that balances a ton of themes while also managing to land each punch. 

The narrative is set in 1924 Harlem not too long after the 1921 Tulsa Massacre. It focuses on the Sangerye Family, who were once a family of notorious monster hunters before they were broken up by tragedy and personal differences. When a new supernatural danger hits the streets, the Sangerye’s must overcome their past challenges and reunite in order to save New York and quite possibly the entire world. 

Illustration of vampires

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This first volume serves as a quick introduction to the different members of the Sangerye family where, much like other comic book super families such as The Umbrella Academy and Doom Patrol, special attention is given to what makes each of them unique. Every character rocks their particular skill set while providing a distinctive perspective on their world that is both generational and intrinsic to who they are. A personal favorite of mine is Berg, who gets an A+ in etiquette and monster brawling. There’s also Ford, who is a Django-type legend that kicks ghoul ass with a massive glock like something out of Doom.

Horror comic art featuring a man with a futuristic gun

Despite a story that is built on serious themes, the content never feels heavy. This is mostly attributed to the vibrant art style that resembles Mike Mingola’s, along with a dash of whimsy found only in golden age Disney films. The opening quite literally has music dancing off the page as we’re introduced to the sights and sounds of 1920’s Harlem. Another standout in this comic is the liberal use of color. Each page seems to have its own color palette, always more bold and surprising than the previous page. 

Fans of Guillermo Del Toro and Jim Henson would lose their mind with the cast of monsters that we come across in these five issues. From orcs and Final Fantasy-like sprites to the more gargantuan crow-head behemoths, you will be treated to a smorgasbord of monstrosities. Most of the ghoulish entities are drawn with a cartoonish quality that gives this dark fantasy a satirical layer, like when a gaggle of Ku Klux Klan members are transformed into slobbering goblins. They appear as scary and ridiculous as the hate that created them. 

Illustration of a zombified man

While the pages are filled with action, the horror lies in the reality of the world that the Sangerye’s are living in. It’s a world that’s not too far from the Harlem it was based on or the state of America that still exists to this day. Despite the sunny disposition that this comic carries, this is ultimately a story about hate and how it can literally change you into something monstrous. There is a moment in the comic when the family wonders if this transformation can be reversed or if it’s permanent. The response to that question is answered, but I imagine that it will be examined more deeply in future issues. 

These five issues are undoubtedly a jazz set charging with energy, breaking only to give each character a momentary solo. This first volume of Bitter Root has nearly everything you could want from a dark fantasy comic series. The world-building balances neatly with its socio-political themes as we are introduced to both the magic and conflict that surrounds this whimsical family’s lives. This volume concludes with a stunning reunion and eerie revelation that will definitely have you ready for the next set of issues. The Sangerye’s are here to stay as they weave their magic, brawl through hordes of snotty imps, and stomp down on the hate that is attempting to consume their world.

Bitter Root Vol. 1 is available now on Amazon and Image Comics.

Rise of the Goatman – Your Typical Night in the Woods

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Rise of the Goatman (2020) feels like a teaser for a compelling slasher series that explores the Maryland-based legend of Goatman. This book has a plot as bare bones as they come, providing just enough intrigue and dread to make you salivate. It’s all guts and no filler. There is no exploration of character or why Goatman is hellbent on splitting-up and splitting apart couples. It’s no different from finding yourself at Camp Crystal Lake on Friday the 13th: You’re simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Art from Rise of the Goatman featuring a man and a woman dricing a car

For those who are new to the urban legend of this ax-wielding man-beast, Goatman was a creature that preyed upon the local lover’s lane in Fletchertown Road, Maryland or at least that was the tale that the teenagers spun. His origin can also be traced to a sinister experiment conducted on goats that took place in the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. Supposedly, this terrible act transformed one of these poor creatures into a vengeful, predatory beast that terrorized the wilds in the surrounding area.

This account builds off of the legend and follows a family that decided to spend their vacation in a seedy cabin in the woods. When they arrive at the cabin they are greeted with a plethora of signs signaling that maybe they should pack up and return home, but vacations only come every once and awhile so why waste it? Unfortunately, their decision has grisly consequences as they discover the Goatman, who’s sure to ruin their plans.

This simple story is perfectly paired with minimalistic art that is full of dark spaces and cinematic imagery. The illustrations reminded me a lot of the cel animation from A Scanner Darkly (2006) executing a fine balance between realism and minimalism. With the identity of a slasher, it doesn’t actually rely on gratuitous violence and instead employs a Hitchcockian approach by leaving a lot of the kills up to the reader’s imagination. While it works for the most part, there is a brutality to Goatman that goes missing in its simplicity. 

For a short comic in a single setting, we are treated to an extensive cast of characters that only serve as mincemeat for the sinister satyr. However, once the bodies start dropping and the titular villain takes the stage, the ride becomes all too brief as it speeds through kill after kill. 

Rise of the Goatman horror comic art featuring a man wit ha gun by a cabin

Goatman charges in full of sound and fury, but it’s curtains before you notice he was ever there. If the goal was to wet your appetite for more of this sinister Billy, then this one definitely hits the nail. You can’t call it in an origin story since this book adds little to no lore about this horned villain, but it serves as more of an introduction of the havoc that is to come. He’s been unleashed and I can’t imagine that this is the last we have seen of him. This book is very much a catalyst to a larger series that can potentially give this horror legend the spotlight it deserves as it leaves a messy trail of lads and lassies who should have just canceled their vacation plans.

Rise of Goatman is available now digitally from Afterlight Comics.

The Autumnal – Folk Horror is Always in Season

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Something strange is happening at Comfort Notch. Joining the ranks of other malevolent township imaginings such as Derry, Arkham, and Riverdale, this New England-inspired setting may fool you at first only to violently push you in a pile of leaves. Is it eco-horror or something more cosmic? Judging by the first three issues of The Autumnal (2020) we’re still early from raking in any answers, but that doesn’t stop the shadowy warnings from creeping into your subconscious.

Kat Somerville -donning a black leather jacket and a pair of sunglasses- is on her way to the principal’s office again to discuss another incident involving her daughter. Underneath the shades hides a black eye that gives a hint to her vices and proclivity toward violence. Her daughter, Sybil, shares that tendency (medically diagnosed as “Intermittent Explosive Disorder”). Kat – prior to the meeting- learns that her estranged mother has passed away, and that a mysterious party has bequeathed her the deceased’s home. So when things turn dicey at the principal’s office, they flee to Comfort Notch, New Hampshire leaving behind her daughters school and Rich Sybil’s absent father. Will this Fall-painted town offer the new beginning that she’s hoping for?

An overarching mother-daughter story is at the heart of The Autumnal, contrasting Kat’s protective relationship with Sybil against the – seemingly- non-existent one with her own mother. Surprisingly, Kat isn’t the only one with disdain for her matriarch Trudy, as the entire town appears to share the sentiment, resulting in an empty church for her funeral and the seemingly-chipper townsfolk to openly speak ill of her. Left with a house full of metaphorical ghosts and nothing but time to investigate, Kat will soon learn the reasons behind her mother’s questionable actions, and how she might be connected to the weirdness in this very uncomfortable town. 

Sometimes the best use of horror comes from evoking fear in the mundane. Look at how Hitchcock made you look twice before hopping in the shower, or how The Conjuring (2013) triggered audiences with a simple clap. Thanks to the artist, Chris Shehan, and colorist, Jim Campbell, The Autumnal somehow manages to transform fall foliage into an ominous void. Orange leaves clog the gutters between panels making for a menacing motif once we arrive at the enigmatic town. The townsfolk are constantly observed raking leaves and warning the characters to stay out of the piles leaving you to wonder what’s lurking beneath. Even worse, leaves are shown in more graphic imagery as part of strange deaths and odd funerary rituals. Nature aside though, the town itself is absolutely suspicious as we encounter haunting nursery rhymes and creepy infantile scribblings all hinting to something mysterious and sinister living in the trees.

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The Autumnal Horror Comic Cover Featuring Scary Girl with sticks

Part of the joy of reading The Autumnal comes from the storytelling of author Daniel Kraus, who received recent praise for his co-authorship on George A. Romero’s posthumous novel, The Living Dead (2020). Kraus has also worked with Guillermo Del Toro on the novel adaption of the Oscar-winning film, The Shape of Water (2017). Clearly influenced by the previously mentioned counterparts, Kraus is soaring through the literary world at lightspeed and with a range that leaves you wondering what he’ll possibly unleash next. However, based on Kraus repertoire, we’ve just touched the surface of The Autumnal and we are most likely in for a treat.

These first three issues introduce us to an intriguing and authentic mother-daughter duo that I’m eager to watch develop in the coming issues. There’s also much to be learned about the pastoral town and whatever diabolical secret it appears to be hiding. This is definitely a series that you’re not going to want to fall behind on. However, while you wait for the remaining issues maybe it’s best that you avoid frolicking through any of those enticing-looking piles of leaves

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